Why does Bob Dylan like “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”?

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series Aaron selects the tracks, and sends them over to Tony who tries to write some sort of commentary while the music is playing.

Aaron: The track was written and first recorded by Peter La Farge

Tony:  Being British, the name Ira Hayes meant nothing to me, and I don’t know how widely his name is known in the US.   I’ve picked up such information as I have from the wiki article on him   (Curiously I do know a little of Peter La Farge and I’ll come back to that at the end after the listening has finished).

I must admit I am not a fan of songs about the sad collapse of a hero; perhaps just generally I don’t like this type of sentimentality and because as mentioned above I do by chance know a little of the composer.

In essence it seems to me we’ve all got huge numbers of faults, and perhaps for that reason it feels a better idea  to remember the positive contributions of our heroes rather than their failings – at least in a song.  Maybe the failings can be left for the biography.

But of course, that is not the way of the world: failings are what people talk about, maybe as compensation for not being able to do what their heroes do.  Maybe that is why some people focus so much on the way Bob has taken lyrics and melodies from other songs, just as composers have done through all human history.

I would call the song “maudlin” but as ever that’s just me: I’d choose not to listen if I had the choice.  But having listened, I still don’t get this – the beat seems to have nothing to do with the hero or the tragedy.

Aaron: The most famous and popular version was by Johnny Cash on his 1964 Bitter Tears album (which contains mostly La Farge compositions)

Tony: The point I suppose is that many of us have two sides to our lives, not least because we are human, and we need to cope with all the complexities of life.  So we adapt to different circumstances, sometimes in good ways sometimes in very regrettable ways.

The problem is, that is not that profound a message, is it?

Aaron: Bob recorded his version during the Self Portrait sessions. It was eventually released on the 1973 Dylan album.

Tony: This song is clearly considered a classic, and Bob adds a very reasonable piano background with the organ sitting behind, which works well – at least until the organist starts to fight for a greater exposure.  But I must say that of the versions that I have now heard this is the one I would go for because Bob gets the move from the talking to the singing just right.

The problem for me is that he then returns to the talking, which is of course the essence of the song, and by the time we get to the chorus again we’ve got a set of choral vocalists joining in as well.  It’s too much for me.

Yes, it is the best of the versions presented above, but by the later parts the organ player really has gone far too far for my taste.

However. the way Bob sings the chorus really is the highlight of all these recordings, and he extracts the meaning of the song in a way that other performers don’t.

Aaron: On November 16, 1975, Dylan performed the song live at the Tuscarora Reservation, and this rendition appears on the 2019 box set The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings and in the 2019 film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.

Tony: Now having picked up on the song properly, through having heard the earlier versions, I really do wonder about this.

Culturally what is going on here?  By now I can get toward an understanding of the song and its history, but I just don’t have a good feeling about that last video.  Of course, I am totally outside of the cultural references going on here and maybe that’s the problem, but even taking that into account, I am really not sure where Bob was going with this.

As for why does Bob like the song… well, I don’t know really.  He does make something interesting out of it in his recorded version, although I could have done without the chorus, but …

I do want to add something about the composer of this song, because he was a most interesting man who died at the age of 34, just as Dylan was reaching out toward the stratosphere.

La Farge was a military man serving his country in the Korean War, and later working as an undercover agent (I think for the CIA but I might have remembered that wrongly) in the fight against drug smuggling.  He was highly decorated for his bravery and patriotic work.

But like many men who were then discharged from the military, he appears to have found it hard to settle down, working as a cowboy in rodeo shows before studying to be an actor, and his tragically early death.

There is an index to other articles in this series here.



  1. Maudlin?

    This can not be allowed to pass….

    Hayes, a native American ‘Indian’, is immortalized in the statue that commemorates the US flag being raised on Iwo Jima Hill….he, like my father, suffered due to the consequences of fighting in WW II ….

    Dylan does a great job emoting the sentiment of sorrow…not of self-pity …

    To knowledge-lacking Tony’s everlasting shame …shame … shame ….shame!

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